The Death of 868 by Max Whittington

Here's the story, as best I can remember it (it may not be 100% accurate, due to the passage of time, and possible mental-editing by my many nightmares about the incident):

First, the picture below was taken by the temporarily assigned crew chief, a few minutes after the crash, and after the engine finally shut down. Lt. Wallace's back is to the camera, and I was later told he was standing there with his handgun out, facing downhill in the stream bed as others retrieved the guns, logbooks, etc., from the chopper.

In January of 1967, I was the gunner on 868, Lt. Wallace the AC, and WO Leach the pilot; my regular crew chief, Don Cline, was on R&R, so the head of the crew chiefs was flying crew chief for us (I don't recall his name).

The 129th was making a company move from Dong Ba Thin to somewhere in the south (Phan Thiet?), with the ships fully loaded with all our personal gear. On the way south, as we neared Phan Rang, we got a radio call that an extraction of security troops (I think they were the 101st) around some just-evacuated artillery firebases had come under fire while they were also being lifted out, about 40-50 klicks (?) to the west.

The entire company landed on the runway at Phan Rang, and we quickly offloaded our gear beside the runway, then flew west to extract the remaining troops.

Due to the nature of the emergency, we flew in and out of the various LZs with little or no Command and Control, extracting the troops and flying them back to Phan Rang. All of the flights became mixed up, and we pretty much went in and out on an individual basis. There was sporadic gunfire, but no gunship support around the LZ in which we in 868 landed, as I recall.

The crew chief and I laid down suppressive fire on the tree lines.

We made one successful extraction, during which a grunt was shot in the ankle as he entered our ship. During the next attempt we had to abort, due to heavy gunfire; then we in 868 made our second landing, loaded up six more troops and their gear, then took off and headed east. We had trouble gaining height, and kept following a large valley, then a branch off that valley, trying to get altitude, never able to get more than 100-200 feet off the ground. Lt. Wallace said that the aircraft appeared to have been hit, and was responding poorly. Suddenly, I felt the power go, and Lt. Wallace yelled for everyone to hang on, we were going down. I slammed my M-60 down into the locked position, as I didn't want it coming back into my chest if we rolled over.

We hit the side of a hill, just above a dry creek bed that Lt. Wallace had been aiming for, and immediately flipped to the right. I blacked out at that point, and woke up in darkness. I was hanging upside down, and blacked out again after I released my seat belt and fell on my head. I came to again, to the smell of smoke and the sound of the engine still running full bore. I could see a crack of light, and started digging with my helmet. After a couple of minutes, I had enough dug out that I could wriggle out from under the aircraft.

I then climbed up on the side of the chopper, to see if anyone was left inside. There was an infantryman still inside, who had been injured - his knee was dislocated.

About that time, I heard Lt. Wallace yelling, "Max, Max, are you O.K.?!" and looked down to see that he was below me, yelling into the hole I had made getting out. I yelled back at him and he looked up and said, "How the hell did you get out of there?!"

Lt. Wallace and, I believe, WO Leach and the crew chief, climbed up on the ship, and we pulled the injured grunt out. Then we all got away from the ship as fast as we could, as the engine was still going berserk and, in
that position, the fuel cells would have been resting against it. I think Lt. Wallace climbed back in for a moment to try the radios, before he joined us. (As it turned out, the engine finally died a few minutes later, without ever catching fire - the smoke I smelled was most likely from the fuel cells resting against the engine, and the electrical stuff burning up from spilled battery acid.)

We all crawled away and uphill through some very thick jungle - the undergrowth below the trees was a lot like blackberry bushes, without the thorns - trying to get as far away from the ship as possible, in case Charlie saw it come down. At one point we heard some excited voices in Vietnamese not too far uphill from us, which quickly faded. We continued in that direction after a bit, and came across a well used trail.

We followed the trail up the hill to a large cleared area near the top, which one of the pilots had spotted just before we crashed, and hid in the elephant grass.

Our biggest problem up to that point was that the pilots had not gotten a mayday out before we crashed, and the small emergency radio's antennae had somehow gotten busted off. Lt. Wallace had tried the radios in the ship before we left the crash site, but they were inop, probably because of the battery acid leaking out onto the wires. We were quite a ways off from the original extraction area, and no one could hear our mayday calls on the small emergency radio, even though we could occasionally see a gunship come up over the mountains a long way to the west, then turn for what was obviously a gunrun on one of the LZs.

Two of us were injured. The grunt's leg was in very bad shape, and while we were crawling through the underbrush my head had frozen cocked down tight on my left shoulder, and my neck was hurting like hell.

Lt. Wallace said that, since I was the highest ranking person with an infantry MOS (11B40), I was in charge of the 'plan,' and everyone else agreed. We were very afraid Charlie would be coming back down the trail we
had used, and would see where we had gone into the clearing. It was decided that each pilot and the crew chief would buddy up with an grunt, two grunts would be together, and the injured grunt and I would be together. If Charlie came back and discovered us, everyone would open up on them at once, then my partner and I would lay down fire with the two M-60s we had (one from crew chief's side of the chopper, and one an infantryman had), and everyone else would run off in different directions into the jungle, and try to make it back to the coast, which we thought was about 20-30 klicks to the east. My grunt and I would keep shooting until we ran out of ammo, then surrender. The other teams spread out around the perimeter of the clearing, and my guy and I set up our machine-guns over a log near the middle of the clearing.

While we were waiting, my partner and I started talking about our situation, and the pucker factor got tighter and tighter. After a bit, Lt. Wallace signaled for everyone to come back to my location, then he parroted exactly what my guy and I had been talking about. He said something to the effect, "Look, if we shoot any of the VC before taking off, and they capture Max and the infantryman, they're going to be really pissed off. The chances of them letting them live are pretty slight, anyway, since we're so deep in 'Indian Territory,' and so far from the border. Let's just shoot over the VCs' heads, then Max and the infantryman can keep firing over their heads, keeping them pinned down, while the rest of us boogie; maybe then Charlie will so happy none of them were hit that the chances will be better that they'll just take them prisoner." We all agreed that plan sounded O.K., and the other pairs went back to their positions.

About fifteen or twenty minutes later occurred one of those miracles that keep one wondering the rest of one's life. We heard the sound of an aircraft approaching from the north. We saw a C-47 heading our way, at a very low altitude. We found out later it was a Puff-the-magic-dragon, which had been hit during an operation, and which was flying low because of some hydraulic damage (or something like that), headed for the airstrip at Phan Rang. It got closer and closer, and passed directly over our clearing at no more than 100 feet - in fact, the shadow from it came directly across the clearing. Lt. Wallace was able to contact them on our damaged emergency radio, and they said they'd "...send out the calvary..." Within 5-10 minutes, we had 129th gunships circling our position. Until then, no one even know we were even missing.

A couple of slicks and an Air Force helicopter from Phan Rang came in to pick us up. The one that rescued me was Air Force - one of those boxy ones, with two sets of angled blades - I don't know what kind it was. They had to hover, due to tree stumps sticking up in the clearing. I helped my injured grunt up onto a stump and into the chopper, then threw in the M-60s and quickly followed. I later learned that at least one of the rescue choppers was hit by enemy fire - apparently from VC who were looking for us after they saw us go down.

The grunt and I were flown to the field hospital in Phan Rang, where I learned the pleasure of morphine! Lt. Wallace and WO Leach came and visited me there, that day, and Lt. Wallace got pretty choked up. I was there for about a week, then returned to Dong Ba Thin, wearing a neck brace for most of the next two months, when I DEROSed. I had a lot of stiffness and bad headaches, and later, back in the states, learned that I had suffered a 'cranial hyperextension.' At the field hospital I had been told that I would be awarded a Purple Heart when I went back to my unit; when I got back to the unit, I was told I should have gotten one while in the hospital. I don't know if I ever was awarded one, as it didn't show up on my DD-214 when I was discharged, but then, neither did some of my Air Medals. My reminder of the injury is a lump (calcium deposit) on the back of my head where my skull and neck knitted back together.

I attended the accident inquiry, a few weeks after got back from the hospital, and it was determined that 868 had been shot down by enemy gunfire, and there was no blame assigned to the pilots or crew.

Due to a heavy VC presence in the area, there was no attempt to lift 868 out, and it was rocketed by 129th gunships and destroyed.

As a somewhat humorous aside: As most who flew during that time may remember, 868 was arguably the strongest chopper in unit, we often flew 'lead' or C&C because of it, and we once flew a double load of 105 artillery ammo (2,800 lbs, as I recall) during an emergency, out of Pleiku. Crew chief Don Cline loved that ship, and even made me help wax it so that we could get a few more knots out of it at highest speed. When he returned from R&R and was told we had been shot down, he immediately asked if the ship was O.K., and got very upset when he learned it had been lost. It was only a bit later that he remembered to ask about the crew!

Also, while I finally made contact with WO Leach, I've not been able to locate Lt. Wallace. If anyone knows where I might find him, please email me at: